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Checking in on the AHA?

From a distance, of course–Potterville is about 1,137 miles away, 4,659 feet higher, and 70 degrees colder than San Diego this morning. Damn! but I wish I were waking up in the Hotel del Coronado today. It’s -11 here now–but it will be sunny, at least! The sun is about the only thing San Diego will have in common today with the High Plains Sub-Zero Freezer we’re locked in until the weekend. Classy Claude will be filing a first-person report later this weekend, if he can peel himself off the beach, shake the sand out of his drawers, and find a wifi hotspot.

First, the good news: the 2010 annual meeting of the American Historical Association is in San Diego! That’s it for the good news I’ve heard. If you’re there and not interviewing for jobs, interviewing for jobs you’re unlikely to get, or interviewing dozens of candidates for a job at your institution, at least you can do it without wearing boots and lugging a giant coat around a big hotel because you’re stuck yet again in Chicago or Boston. (Who’s with me on pushing the AHA to south and west, friends? We’ll throw Denver in there too, for you winter sports enthusiasts. How about instead of Chicago, Boston, Chicago, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Atlanta, and Chicago, we have Dallas, Phoenix, San Diego/L.A., Denver, and San Francisco?)

Inside Higher Ed reports that attendance is down at the AHA this year, because of the economy and the related dearth of open positions in history. (There are also fewer drop-ins than there would be in major Eastern cities because of the West Coast location, too, and the additional travel expense for people in the Eastern and Central time zones especially.) And, the AHA itself reported that it’s “A Grim Year on the Academic Job Market for Historians,” because “[d]uring 2008–09 job advertisements fell by 23.8 percent—from a record high of 1,053 openings in 2007–08 to 806 openings in the past year. This was the smallest number of positions advertised with the AHA in a decade. To make matters worse, a subsequent survey of advertisers indicates that about 15 percent of the openings were cancelled after the positions were advertised.” Marc Bousquet at How the University Works takes issue with the AHA report’s conclusion that the problem is an oversupply of history Ph.D.s, and says that it’s not an oversupply of qualified job candidates, but that it’s an undersupply of tenure-track jobs because of university administrators’ decisions over the past 25 years to hire more contingent faculty than tenured or tenure-track faculty proportionally.

In his post, Bousquet flatters Historiann as a “really smart” person in history who thinks about these issues. I have to admit that I do little more than think and occasionally write about them–so understand that I get all of my data from Robert Townsend at the AHA, too. As to the question whether it’s the supply-side or the demand-side in history employment that ’s the cause of this crisis, my sympathies lie with Marc’s analysis. I think he also raises some great questions about which historians the AHA actually represents–my sense is that they represent most four-year institutions and people who teach there, not public historians, secondary school teachers, or community college professors, which may explain some of the biases of its data.

I wonder, though: where all these people are coming from on the supply side? Why are there still so many smart, talented people rushing off to get Ph.D.s in history? Townsend’s article notes that the numbers of history graduate students has been “have been relatively consistent over the past decade“–hovering back and forth close to 12,000. No one I know is selling graduate students on the marvellous future employment opportunities, and I don’t think I’m the only historian out there with ethical and honest friends and colleagues. (Jonathan Rees offers some interesting thoughts on the supply-side question, too–check him out. And, bookmark this gossipmonger, C. Vann Winchell: ze’s a lot less earnest and helpful than I am, but probably a lot more fun.)

So, on with the earnest and helpful: Our current “crisis,” as Townsend notes, is a variation on a theme we’ve been seeing and hearing for 20 or 30 years. From what I’ve heard from friends who finished grad school in the mid-70s and early 80s, our current crisis has nothing on what that generation faced (walking to the library through snowstorms, uphill, both ways, etc.) But seriously: the college tuition benefit of the G.I. Bill in the 1940s and 1950s, which along with Cold War funding of space and weapons research, led to a massive growth and expansion of American universities in the 1950s and 60s. When the bottom dropped out of this expansion and concurrent hiring binge in the 1970s, there was truly a “lost generation” of historians who either left the profession, or went into public history. (I think it’s this generation that elevated the stature of public history, because so many of them brought their professional training into museums, archives, and other public history ventures, which was all for the better.) Since then, we’ve seen the chronic de-funding of public universities and the withdrawal of other public education subsidies, and the rise of corporate-style management in university administration: get the most for the least by destabilizing the faculty (by shifting more of them away from tenure-track positions) and now de-skilling our work (with the rise of on-line courses.) I’d welcome additions or corrections to this short history from those of you who are survivors of the “lost generation” especially–Susan? Indyanna? Random lurkers? What have I left out that’s important for today’s whippersnappers to understand?

I have remarked to friends of mine that I feel like I won the lottery because I took my degree in December 1996, just as the job market was picking up in the later 90s. I started my first tenure-track job in the fall of 1997, and then applied in the fall of 2000 for other jobs, and came to Baa Ram U. in the fall of 2001. I hit the sweet spot almost perfectly–especially as a young woman. At that time, it seemed like I and a lot of my women friends had good luck, because the departments that hired us were either hiring in women’s history, or they were looking to diversify their faculty after not having been able to hire since the 1970s. I think the situation for young women on the academic job market has declined in the past few years–in part because people like me got hired 10 years ago, so there’s not as much of a sense of urgency to ensure an even playing field. (But that’s probably a subject for another day.)

Are there any readers at the conference? Interviewing for jobs, or interviewing candidates for jobs? What are you seeing and hearing out there?”

Read entire article at Historiann (Blog)